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I-Team: EPA superfund sites in West Michigan at risk flooding, threatening groundwater

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A fence site surrounded the{ }Auto Ion Chemicals, Inc. site for so long trees started have grown around it and the fading sign attached to the locked gate. (WWMT/Andrew Feather)

The former site of Auto Ion Chemicals, Inc. doesn’t look like much sitting on a 1.5 acre plot of land on Mills Street in Kalamazoo.

A fence site surrounded the site for so long trees started have grown around it and the fading sign attached to the locked gate. The sign, featuring an Environmental Protection Agency logo that hasn’t been used since 2002, reads, “U.S. EPA Superfund Cleanup Site," as a notice that the plot sitting about a mile from downtown Kalamazoo is considered by the federal government to be one of the most contaminated pieces of land in the United States.

“These sites house some of the most dangerous chemicals known to humankind,” said Jacob Carter, a research scientist with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

While each of 67 federal Superfund sites in Michigan all have their own hazards, the Auto Ion site was among six in southwest Michigan that could pose an even larger threat, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office, because the sites lie in areas with a greater than 1% chance of annual flooding.

Carter led a study in In 2020 that looked at the threat of natural disasters at Superfund sites.

He said the effects of climate change could make the problem posed by potential flooding an even greater risk.

A 2016 report from the EPA said severe flooding in Michigan would likely increase in the coming years due to climate change.

“If you have flood waters essentially wash over the site that could potentially pick up those contaminants and spread them into nearby communities,” Carter said.

Kalamazoo City Engineer James Baker said it was unlikely floods in West Michigan would wash away chemicals from Superfund sites because their surfaces have been cleaned and elevated.

The Auto Ion site sits a couple feet above the rest of the surrounding land. Baker said it was an intentional effort to keep it from being submerged in the case of a 100-year flood.

He said because of efforts to clean the Superfund sites, even if water did cover them, it was the water underneath the surface that was the priority.

“Our greatest concern on this site would be groundwater contamination,” he said about the former Auto Ion site. “One of the contaminants that continues to be detected in the groundwater in this site are low levels of mercury.”

Two miles from the former Auto Ion site are the wells that pull drinking water for the city of Kalamazoo.

Baker said groundwater heads in a predictable direction but large floods could change that flow.

“As that river goes up and down and gets really high during flood stage, that groundwater can reverse direction," he said.

Because even the smallest chance of contamination can make a major impact, Baker said groundwater was consistently tracked.

"We need to make sure that we’re tracking anything that happens here and making sure that it stays on this site,” he said. “We’ve seen examples in the state of Michigan where one day the water system is fine, the next day you get some test results and it's not fine.”

Baker said the city had a plan ready to go at a moment's notice if there were any sign the potentially contaminated water started to move.

Superfund sites at an elevated risk of flooding in West Michigan include: